Bodhi Tree in Islamabad

Posted on March 19, 2007
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, History, Religion, Society, Travel
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Guest Post by Mast Qalandar

In my last two posts on Islamabad (here and here) I talked about the woods and the forest trails that I love so much and take to them whenever I can.

In those woods, at the foot of the Margallas, until a few years ago, there was a very large and very old tree, believed to be several hundred years old. Its gnarled branches sprawled like an umbrella over a very large area around the tree.

It was a pipal tree (ficus religiosa). Pakistani residents of Islamabad were generally unaware of the significance of this tree. But the tree attracted many expatriate residents, mostly from South East or East Asian diplomatic missions in Islamabad. They would come and simply contemplate the tree and its surroundings. Someone had even a built a concrete kiosk and a concrete bench next to the tree for visitors to sit. The tree was believed to be a Bodhi tree.

What is a bodhi tree and how it came to be in Islamabad?

As many of us would remember from our history books, that is, if one graduated before the 1970s, for afterwards they stopped teaching history of pre-Muslim era of the subcontinent in schools, prince Siddhartha Gautuma meditated under an old pipal tree in Gaya, a village near Patna, Bihar, some 2,500 years ago. Ultimately he achieved nirvana, or was “awakened”.

Consequently, the tree under which he sat was named Bodhi, meaning “awakening.” Sidhartha Gautuma became Buddha (the awakened) and the village came to be known as Bodh Gaya, the name it still carries today. The Bhodi tree that grows in Bodh Gaya today is believed to be a direct offspring of the original Bhodi tree.
In the centuries after Buddha, the Bodhi tree became a symbol of Buddha’s presence and an object of devotion for Buddhists.

A little more history before I get to the pipal tree in the woods of Islamabad.

King Ashoka (died 232 BC), the third Maurian king, converted to Buddhism and became a great advocate of the religion and actively propagated Buddhism throughout his empire. The Mauran Empire included, other than the present Northern India, the Gandhara region, which included the area around present day Islamabad, the Peshawar valley and parts of Afghanistan and Iran. Taxila (then Taxshashila), Peshawar (then Parshpura) and Charsaddah (then Pushklavati) were important cities of Gandhara. It was at this time that Taxila reached the peak of its development and became the center of Buddhism. Chandra Gupta Mauria and Asoka spent time at Taxila and so did their famous political adviser, Chanakya, who taught at Taxila.

King Asoka’s daughter, Sanghamitra, who became a Buddhist nun, is said to have taken a cutting of the Bohdi tree from Bhod Gaya to Sri Lanka and planted it at Anaradapura, the ancient capital of the island, where it still grows. Many temples throughout the Buddhist world have bodhi trees growing in them, which are or are believed to be offspring of the one from Anaradapura.

Now, back to Islamabad.

The old pipal tree that grew in the woods of Islamabad was also believed to be “descendent” of the Bodhi tree in Gaya, possibly planted, centuries ago, by a devotee, alongside a temple that might have existed there. Taxila, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from Islamabad, and is full of Buddhist monuments – stupas, statues and remains of monasteries.

In the 1980s, Ziaul Haq ruled Pakistan. In his zeal to “Islamize” the country, he encouraged and helped build madrassas all over the country, many with Saudi money. One such madrassa was built in the woods of Islamabad, not far from where the Bodhi tree stood. Over the years, the madrassa expanded, as most madrassas do, violating the building codes and encroaching upon state land, to become one of the largest madrassas in Islamabad. Today, it occupies 5-7 acres of prime real estate in Islamabad and has a sprawling building complex, and a very large playing field – probably larger than any school or college in Islamabad might have.

The madrassa houses a couple of thousand students ranging in age from 6 to 26, or even older. One sees them during breaks in their classes when they swarm into the playground and overrun the nearby children’s park, driving the children and women out. It is a bizarre sight to see young bearded men swinging and sliding on the swings and slides meant for children. Other contributions of these madrassa students to the community are: street signs defaced with posters soliciting sacrificial animal skins, and vandalized letterboxes.

All these violations of civic rules would be a minor misdemeanor compared to what they did to the Bodhi tree one night. They set it on fire! A symbol of a different faith standing so close to the madrassa was something too defiant for the trainee clerics to tolerate. What was really sad and frightening, though, was not just the loss of an old tree or the act of wanton vandalism but the mindset that wouldn’t tolerate anything that did not fit into their pattern of beliefs. I suppose, the madrassa students were simply replicating the example of the Taliban who, earlier that year, to the horror of the whole world, had blasted the 1500 years old Bamyan Buddhas, in Afghanistan. Obviously, the Taliban virus had spread pretty wide and deep into Pakistan

Fortunately, because of its very large girth, the Bodhi tree did not burn down completely even though it was badly damaged. It survived with half of its branches still intact. The city administration tried to preserve what was left of the tree. They even posted guards at the site for sometime after the incident to protect the tree from any further attacks. When I saw it last, a few years ago, it was still green and seemed as if it was struggling to recover from the wounds inflicted upon it.

Last week, having returned to Islamabad after two years, I decided to look up the tree, as if you would look up an old friend, and see how it was doing. I was shocked. There was no tree there! Only a few logs of the decapitated tree were lying around like dead bodies. The concrete kiosk next to it was partially demolished, its remaining walls covered with graffiti, and the bench was gone. Through the woods, I could also see the madrassa, some construction work going on it. Still expanding, I guess.

No one knows, or is willing to say, how the tree finally perished. Did it just die of its old age or past injuries, or was it chopped down by the same people who had tried to burn it down earlier?
(All pictures, except the first, by the author)

128 responses to “Bodhi Tree in Islamabad”

  1. Speaking about this specific topic that has been published about the Bodhi Tree in Islamabad, I feel, Its history published in here is quite very true. I have been having a look at other related posts and I feel like, a great research has been done for a specific post.

    You are to be congratulated anyway for such a wonderful post.



  2. A brilliant information has been written and posted in this article. To be frank, that is a worth seeing place, and why not, Islamabad is always bright and open to all.

    Unfortunately, the couple of bad incidents in previous days, had very much let our city, our humans, citizens, and the foreigners, let think about living in here, but even then, things got normal, and now Its the same city, with high life, security and all. And why not, since we have the best humans in here.

    I have been studying couple of blogs about it, but I found this specific page a home for each and every thing about Pakistan. Too less is seen.

    I have tried to post couple of articles on this specific blog about the Real Estate Islamabad, but each time, there had been trouble posting the articles. Maybe you can have a look at this matter, and let users send you the articles and/or the press releases, the stories, or the incident content pages, that will surely let your blog get more traffic to your blog, as well as more users, and good discuession chances as well.

    All the best!

    Ali Hassan

  3. Guna says:

    Here is Gandara, Taxila , the Ancient Buddhist Kingdom, Thanks for yr posting that article, I love tree, we love it. The This link is ALL about lovely Pakistan and Gandara, Taxila Buddhist Kingdom: chien1

    Buddha, Afanishtan 1500 years ancient statues has been destroyed by Taliban. We are very sorry for that news. really sad. thousand years, now, just ash, they Taliban do not know our ancestors, who great to build such Huge Buddha Silent Statues.

  4. Hussain says:

    wonderful article bringing the terrible neo nazi acts of madressah children to light

    May Allah destroy these madressah ppl and inflict the same wounds on them like they inflicted on that poor tree (which was of a much more service tpo the society than those madressah guys)

  5. Uzma says:

    Thank you for this beautifully written story. Sad, but glad to see how many people are protesting the destruction. At least we are not totally dead as a nation and there are those who still hope for a tolerant and broad-binded society.

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